Matt Damon reaches for Elysium
In movies, the future is often an arena for acting out the anxieties of the present. Elysium presents a stark contrast between the haves, comfortably ensconced in a space station wheeling like a giant donut around the world, and the have-nots, struggling to live on an Earth where every acre is Third World. For the terrestrial scenes, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) used the slums skirting Mexico City as the stand-in for 21st century Los Angeles. The space station, called Elysium, is a deluxe garden city in space with tree-lined streets and mansions. LA is a decaying shantytown covered in smog, rubble and graffiti.
Elysium stars Matt Damon as Max DeCosta, an ex-con trying to go straight by working in a rattletrap LA factory under abusive managers and unsafe conditions. Growing up in a Roman Catholic orphanage, he asked the kindly nun why a few could live in Elysium and the rest were stuck here on Earth. Sister had no explanation for the grim social reality, yet she imbued Max with a sense of self-worth. He isn't going to abandon hope—or the memory of the girl at the orphanage he loved, Frey.
Max and Frey (Alice Braga) are thrown together again after he suffers a radiation accident in the factory. He has five days to live and can only be cured through a “regeneration” process available on Elysium. Although she is a nurse in a decrepit earthbound hospital, her daughter will die of leukemia for lack of access to regeneration. But there are no visas to Elysium. The best medical care is reserved for the wealthy dwellers of the artificial satellite in the sky. The poor, more or less everyone else, are left with Band-Aids and painkillers in Earth's pestilential, polluted cities.
The countdown is on for Max and the girl to find the cure, and the quest for affordable health care becomes a battle against great odds. Jodie Foster co-stars as the iron lady of Elysium, a heartless Defense Secretary who orders incoming "undocumented" space shuttles shot down. There are arguments among the ruling class over how tough is tough enough. Madame Secretary takes the hardest line, pledging to preserve "our liberty" in the zenith of gated communities against the rabble down below.
Elysium's plot points don't always add up; its climactic battle royal is the usual Hollywood pyrotechnical display of impossible violence and its conclusion comes just a little too easy. But along the way are some solid science-fiction devices, including the downloading of data into human brains and a criminal cartel intent on kidnapping a mirthless plutocrat and stealing his information by uploading his brain data into a thumb drive. Damon is excellent, revealing boyishness under his butch shaven head and gang tattoos, comfortable in a role where the hero can show fear. Elysium's lasting impression, however, is a vision of the one percent comfortably isolated and the ninety-nine confined to sprawling slums policed by robocops and surveillance drones.